Community-building online

“Educational institutions are spaces for learning, but more specifically, they are spaces for social learning. And so our role as educators and administrators of educational institutions has to be focused on building community in addition to offering courses, designing curriculum, and credentialing.” Jesse Stommel, How to Build an Online Learning Community: 6 Theses

When we do not intentionally weave opportunities for social learning and community building into the design of our online learning spaces, participants may feel siloed and alone, making it difficult to engage with learning content or peers. Research has shown that online learning succeeds best when participants feel part of a trusted community, supported by their instructors, programs, and peers.

While it can be challenging to virtually capture the spontaneity of community-building that occurs in face-to-face classrooms and on a physical campus, there are numerous online avenues for cultivating community spirit. Examples include providing time and space for participants to get to know one another on a personal level, scheduling extracurricular activities like virtual game nights and coffee chats, and offering real-time communication channels that facilitate informal conversations, to name a few.

Inclusive design is another important consideration in community-building online. If learners feel left out of discussions or can’t access vital materials to participate in a course or online activity, they will likely experience frustration and disengagement. Providing learners with multiple avenues and opportunities for participating in online courses and activities can go a long way toward strengthening community-building online.

Below, we outline suggestions for building community online at the course, program/department, and co-curricular or campus levels.

Creating online community at the course level

The Community of Inquiry model is a good place to start for understanding the different components that feed into community-building in online courses. This model speaks to the importance and intersection of social presence, teaching presence, and cognitive presence:

  • Social presence is “the ability of participants to identify with the community…, communicate purposefully in a trusting environment, and develop interpersonal relationships by way of projecting their individual personalities. (Garrison, 2009)”
  • Teaching Presence is “the design, facilitation, and direction of cognitive and social processes for the purpose of realizing personally meaningful and educationally worthwhile learning outcomes (Anderson, Rourke, Garrison, & Archer, 2001).”
  • Cognitive Presence is “the extent to which learners are able to construct and confirm meaning through sustained reflection and discourse (Garrison, Anderson, & Archer, 2001).”

For some specific examples of activities that correspond with each of these elements, check out our Strategies for Engaging Students.

Some different strategies for building community in an online course include:

  • Create a holistic communication strategy. Let students know how to best communicate with you (e.g., via Canvas, email, or another channel). Be clear about hours you are available and how long students should allow to hear back from you (e.g., You can expect to hear back from me within 24 hours. I will not respond between the hours of 6pm and 9am EDT.). Build in opportunities for informal connection, as well as for class “housekeeping.” For more ideas, see our Online Communication Strategies.
  • Set virtual office hours. At the beginning of the semester, if class size allows, you may also want to reach out to students individually and schedule 15 minutes with each of them via phone or video chat.
  • Ask students to help develop community standards that answer the question, how do we want to be, together? You might use Google Docs or another collaborative writing space to co-create these standards early in the semester.
  • Facilitate informal messaging and discussion using a tool like Microsoft Teams or Slack, or provide some other channel for informal sharing. Encourage students to reach out to each other with questions about assignments and technology.
  • Build time into each week for getting to know each other on a more personal level. For example, start synchronous meetings or asynchronous learning modules with a proactive open-ended question. These questions can be quick (“In one word, describe how you’re feeling today”); focused on a specific topic (“Share why you’re passionate about language learning”); or focused on general life experiences (“If you could choose anywhere in the world to visit, name where and why”).
  • Each week, at the end of that week’s module or at the beginning of the next week’s, add some general class feedback about the week that just passed. For example, highlight individual student responses or submissions that were particularly well thought out, or class activities or discussions that were especially memorable (or that did not go well, and reflect on why). Use this as a segue to the new week. Show students you are actively engaged with the class, just as you expect them to be. Michael Wesch’s video 10 Online Teaching Tips beyond Zoom includes some nice examples of this.
  • Solicit regular feedback from students on how things are going and what they might like to see done differently, particularly if you try out a new technology or learning activity. This can be done through an informal poll or survey. Afterward, acknowledge that you’ve heard their suggestions, and make adaptations as you can that respond to their feedback. Show that you are listening and that their opinions matter.
  • Require peer feedback as part of assignments and discussion forums. Canvas allows you to automatically or manually assign peer feedback on graded assignments and discussions.
  • Have students choose themed virtual backgrounds for synchronous meetings (e.g., somewhere in the world you’d like to visit, a person whose work you admire, your favorite animal), or change their profile photo in Canvas once a week.
  • Use breakout rooms in synchronous meetings to allow for small-group discussions.
  • Provide a mix of learning activities, as well as opportunities to work both solo and in groups.

Creating online community at the program/department level

At the program/department level, there are also creative ways to build and maintain community online. This can be as important as at the individual course level, as it shows solidarity of faculty across programs, encourages faculty to work together to ensure no student is left unsupported, and allows students to stay in contact with their program peers, with whom they may not currently be sharing a course. It also facilitates community building among faculty themselves, and provides a platform for informal communication and support program-wide.

Some ideas for tools and strategies to build and maintain online community program-wide include:

  • Hold virtual events, such as game night, coffee chats, cookoffs, and book clubs. Invite alumni to join in the fun. (If you’re looking for a free, engaging, and simple virtual game to play, check out Top Four.)
  • Invite alumni and external specialists to serve as guest speakers or panelists at virtual talks that cover topics of interest to the program as a whole.
  • Host regular town hall sessions for students, where you provide program updates and news and celebrate special accomplishments. Invite students to participate in live Q&As or to submit questions ahead of time.
  • Divide up students in the program among professors and have professors be responsible for reaching out to their assigned students on a biweekly or monthly basis to see how they’re doing and inquire if they have questions or concerns.

Set up a program-wide communication channel for informal discussion, posting events, and providing updates. This could be a website (using Middcreate or SitesDOT), a Canvas site, a Microsoft Teams group, or a Slack group, to name a few options.

Creating online community at the campus, co-curricular, or institutional level

Although it may seem daunting, virtual community can be built at the co-curricular, campus, and institutional level as well. Examples include:

  • Scheduling theme-focused virtual events like book clubs, social hours, international cuisine week, preview week, faculty talks, and guest speakers.
  • Hosting organization- or institution-wide town halls by audience (faculty, staff, students) or as a unified group. Middlebury hosted a number of town halls via Zoom this spring, which were consistently well attended.
  • Creating an organization- or institution-wide communication channel that supports participant contributions, instant messaging, and the creation of subgroups by program, theme, audience, etc. This can be done via a website (Middcreate, SitesDOT), Canvas, Slack, Microsoft Teams, or, as detailed below, an app like Campus.

Examples from Middlebury

The Middlebury Campus, the student newspaper at the College, initiated a remote storytelling project when courses went online during the pandemic. The Middlebury Off-Campus Project is a compilation of stories from students, employees, alumni, and residents of Addison County, Vermont, with a mission “to give voice to the despair and hope precipitated by the interruption of campus life, even while we’re all quarantining in different corners of the globe.”

Queers and Allies at MIIS, commonly known as QAAAM, is a student club open to all students who share a mutual interest in cultivating, nurturing, and enriching the queer experience at MIIS. QAAAM stays active in cultivating online community this spring, through its Facebook site, an online book club, and designing and hosting MIIS’s annual Lavender Graduation.

MIIS as a whole created a new type of online community for students called MIcommunity. MIcommunity is a Facebook-like space that supports participant posting and commenting, the creation of groups, an events calendar, private and group messaging, and shared resources and pages.

Middlebury’s Faculty at Home webinar series has extended Middlebury’s reach to our community around the world, as faculty lead free interactive talks on timely topics. This webinar series invites participants to engage in the digital space and to stay connected with faculty members, with big ideas, and with each other.

Both College and Institute leadership hold regular town halls for faculty, staff, and students, and keep everyone apprised of updates and decision-making processes and timelines in personalized communications from leadership via email and web. Open and transparent communication, and opportunities for questions and comments from the broader community, are important components in maintaining community and engagement in online settings.